Module 2

1.2 Virginia: Pre-1642 Virginia Settlement:

Road Map to Part 1 of this Chapter

This module, the first in a four-module Part 1 of this chapter, details the first years of Virginia’s colonial settlement, outlining the Jamestown Company period (1607-1625) and the subsequent Crown-appointed Royal Governors (1625-1642). Accordingly this module will assess the impact and implications of a rather turbulent, unplanned and contested settlement of Virginia’s coastal Tidewater, the poorly developed political and policy system, the establishment of an export mass production tobacco-dominant economic base, and the failure of the colony to foster either coherent and viable urban centers or a competent export port with associated sector development. Led to the formation of Virginia’s “shredded community” policy system. The aggregate impact of these dynamics led to a very early reliance on county-level policy system and county elites as a key element in the colony’s overall policy system.

The next module centers on the breakout political and economic take-off generated by Virginia’s most impactful royal Governor, William Berkeley (1642-1677). Berkeley, Virginia’s most impactful colonial governor, pursued a multi-faceted economic development agenda, with mixed results that failed to alter meaningfully its mono-economic base. On the other hand, Berkeley’s targeted people-attraction strategy linked with land grants, workforce incentives, greatly expanded Virginia’s size, population, and economic base deep into its interior—taking along with it the tobacco economic base, and a new Royalist immigrant elite that radically infused both the content and the sustainability of the Tidewater political culture.

The third module describes how and why a planter-based oligopoly developed at the local level, assumed leadership over the local economic base despite Crown attempts to implement its own strategies,, dominated the local-county level policy system, and during and after the Berkeley period became arguably the key player in the colony-level policy system. Virginia’s economic base was established, and the core nature of Virginia’s state and local system set in place by the first decade of the eighteenth century. That Virginia colonial policy system that persisted until the American Revolution and, as shall be described in Part 3 of this chapter continued in its essentials to the mid-19th Century Early Republic.

The fourth module describes the state and local policy systems that developed by the first decade of the 18th century, and continued in its essentials through 1851.

Part 2 will focus on the evolution of the Virginia economic base and policy system as it “drifted into, and became a leader in the American War for Independence. That description will include the arrival of several ethnic migrations in Virginia’s west and the response of the planter oligopoly to a decline in the tobacco export and that elite’s need to diversify its “business model” and to manage the potential threat of new migrants to the dominance of the Tidewater colony-level policy system. It will vividly describe the leadership of the dominant Tidewater planter oligopoly, the evolution of its political culture, and present an explanation of why and how that elite played such a major role in the drive to independence but more critically on the writing and the thought that underscored both the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the Early

The First Migration: 1607 to 1642

The first European migration into Virginia started with the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 (I ignore Roanoke).The founding of Jamestown was an economic development venture, led and managed by a mercantilist public-private corporation (the Virginia Company of London) authorized by, and in partnership with, the Crown in 1606. The Crown wanted land and a colony in the New World to ensure the Spanish didn’t get there first and profits/taxes help fill the sorely depleted English coffers. In the same year, the Crown also established a second public-private corporation intended to set up shop, accomplish the same purposes (substituting the French for the Spanish) in a broadly defined New England–the Plymouth Company. Each Company drew its corporate management from either London or Bristol-Plymouth England, and each was composed of a diverse group of knights, merchants, gentlemen and “others”.

The basic principle underlying both joint stock corporations was that (1) English North American colonization was to be led and managed by private entities for public purposes as well as private, and (2) the corporation would possess the right of self-governance, which in 1606 was by no means equivalent to the establishment of democracy in either colony. Rather, given the distance and the uniqueness of the task in a hostile neighborhood, considerable discretion and autonomy was necessary and accordingly the King allowed formation of a “local council” to run affairs at the colony. Over time, the King assumed a more or less “arms-length” relationship to colonial affairs.

The Plymouth Company ran on rough ground almost immediately and in a few years simply ceased operation and the structure became inactive (the Plymouth Mayflower expedition was based on another charter corporation). In time, the structure was acquired by the Pilgrims, whose goals and composition were substantially different from the original 1606 intents and purposes. The Virginia Corporation did establish Jamestown and was able over the following horrible years to keep it going, feed it new recruits to replace its dead, and supply it sufficiently to keep somebody alive during its infamous “starving time”.

The Jamestown Company private sector London-based elites in turn wanted quick profits from  gold that supposedly was to be found there (the Spanish found gold in Peru, you understand). British traders were also in search of their own route to China and Asia. While investors in the Virginia Company were looking for profits, they were pretty unsure of how they were to be made. So they sent over 144 adventurers, including a goodly number of refugees from the English “enclosure movement”, on three ships, which, in their good time, wandered into Jamestown bay. The take away from this observation is that Jamestown was an economic, not political enterprise for those that made the trip over. Jamestown colonists saw the colony as an opportunity to make quick profits; minerals, gold especially was what they really were looking for–not farming.  The government set up to run the colony was divided, and by no means had the capacity to meet the demands that would befall it. The combination of two proved deadly to the enterprise: “no talke, no hope, no worke, but dig gold, wash gold, refine gold, load gold” wrote Captain John Smith. Still, when gold was not found, farming was all that was left.

It has usually been assumed that their principal thought was of gold … he Jamestown project as essentially a misguided gold hunt. … The record of course does not lack evidence supporting such a viw, but there s a need for greater care, … not until … 1608 was the settlement stirred by the fever of a real gold hunt [1a]

This began a seventeen year fiscal disaster for the corporation and a personal disaster for most that emigrated. It is estimated that joint stock, royally-chartered Jamestown Corporation lost 200,000 pounds, a considerable sum—effectively ensuring its economic and fiscal ruin. About 3,750 settlers were sent to Virginia in this period; 3,000 died, and in 1624 only about 1,200 Virginians remained alive [1]. The Company sent more transfusions of colonists into the hellhole that Jamestown became in those early years. Of note proved by Wesley Frank Craven, they came by means of a trans-Atlantic route first pioneered by Columbus. The route took them along and through parts of the Azores, and what the Spanish/Portuguese called the West Indies: Bermuda, Barbados where they often stopped. There they became observant of the Spanish/Portuguese hundred year experience in the New World. Many stayed, coming to America in a subsequent migration: Jefferson’s family came from the West Indies, as did Alexander Hamilton. Washington’s only visit abroad was to the Barbados. The route to Boston-Massachusetts–Philadelphia and New York, however, was different. A straight shot across the North Atlantic. Instead of pirates, they faced storms. In such small details, cultures would take shape.

The Corporation could not make money, and the colony’s costs were beyond the willingness and capacity of its investors, the legacy of the joint stock corporation on Virginia, however, was significant. To spare the ready unnecessary detail, the first five or six years were an incredible horror story, but by the end of its first decade, the colony had innovated and developed an agricultural commodity whose market demand was so huge it was able to afford an opportunity for economic success to those who could survive in this extremely hostile land. That innovative commodity was, of course, tobacco.

John Rolfe was the tobacco innovator-entrepreneur. . The first four kegs of his tobacco were sent to England in 1614. Market demand was incredible, profits flowed like water, and the Virginia tobacco rush was on.

Hardscrabble survivors of Jamestown saw “tobacco in them there swamps” and off they went to set up their own plantations on the Tidewater coastline. Plantations quickly dotted the coastline, and dipped into the coastal lowlands. For all practical purposes tobacco plantations were the Virginia’s economic base by 1620 Virginia, the year the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Seemingly by accident the settlers, not the Jamestown Company, had found their path to riches and in America’s first herd-like economic expansion planted an economy devoted almost exclusively to the production and London-export of tobacco–an agricultural gazelle-like cluster had taken shape  While the corporation failed, new opportunistic immigrants bought into the plantation and tobacco as their cash crop and over the two decades the coastal Tidewater became laced with roughly hacked tobacco plantations.

Sustained by a monstrous consumer demand that required considerable acreage to produce the volumes demanded, the Virginia planters soon discover that to make a profit they required a low or no-wage labor force that kept its price competitive. That low wage mass production of tobacco, of course, was the motivation that set Project 1619 in motion (the importation of black slaves). By 1625 there were 23 Africans recorded on Virginia’s population survey [2]. Virginia’s first slaves, however, were predominately Native American.

The wild and woolly, opportunistic, almost thuggish character of the Jamestown Company policy-making was not drawn from a mature political culture, but from the serendipity of the kinds of people attracted into a remote and dangerous wilderness 3000 nautical miles from European civilization. The “colonists” that populated Virginia during this period were the original “wild bunch”, male mostly, and lots of indentured folk. Effective governance, i.e. law and order, was non-existent. This was a hostile wilderness and Virginia was close to being a semi-organized anarchy, making the 1880’s West’s Dodge City” look pretty amateurish. I could talk about a policy system, elites, policy-making and economic development strategies, but it would be silly to try to make those concepts fit into this period. Plantations, therefore, not yeoman subsistence/hardscrabble homesteads became the core economic unit of Virginia’s new economic base and each freedman agricultural entrepreneur endeavored to become a plantation owner. What followed would have made Darwin proud.

The best that could be said about the Virginia Company policy system was happened in 1618. The 1618 “Greate Charter” was the first major legislation for the Jamestown Company. First, the Greate Charter set up formally the colonial policy system. It recognized the Council of State, the House of Burgesses and replaced formally the company board as the colony’s executive in favor of a royal-appointed governor. The King formally deferred to these bodies in the day-today administration of policy. Secondly, the Greate Charter approved tobacco export as the colony’s “economic base” and set up (based on the Bermuda plantation model) the structure of how the colony would promote and regulate that sector.

Key to this economic system was the formalization of the headright incentive which granted fifty acres to each settler upon arrival, imposed quitrents (taxes) on the land. The Greate Charter is an example of what I call “people attraction”–a core economic development strategy. The original incentive used in this early form of people attraction was free land, which ironically came with the requirement that future taxes be paid on that land. The Greate Charter supports our contention that people-attraction linked with “land development” was the original, primeval American economic development strategy in colonial America.

Following up on his pioneering paradigm Governor Sir George Yeardley in 1619 convened a General Assembly composed of locally-elected burgesses (delegates) to enact company/colony laws restricting drunkenness, gambling, swearing and whatnot. It is from this auspicious beginning that the House of Burgesses evolved–personifying the wave of limited colonial self-government that swept across each colony that subsequently followed. Virginia was the first colony and to it falls the honor of having in the House of Burgesses the first known representative body in British North America.

The “workforce” for these fragile startup plantations, besides the planter himself, was captured Indian slaves, then a few Black slaves imported from the West Indies. In these years, and the next half-century, however, the plantation workforce was mostly indentured servants whose trip was paid for by their employer in return for up to seven years of labor–which few survived. At termination of contract, specified acreage was transferred to the new “freeholder” and that was the attraction, liberated from his contract the freed former indentured servant could start his own plantation. That was the theory; reality had other ideas.

Freeholder plots were too small for competitive tobacco production, which was the only agriculture the former indentured servant knew. In short order the freeman work force transformed themselves into sharecroppers and day laborers–an agricultural lumpen proletariat wandering about, employed and ruled by hardscrabble plantation land lords—or failing that they attempted some level of autonomy by setting up subsistence plots in the most isolated hinterlands. The latter were to become the most desperate and brutalized of all the former indentured servants. From its start, Virginia was a bastion of inequality.

Unmentioned in this description is the Jamestown business venture coexisted with another political culture, the Native American tribes that already lived there. That coexistence was short-lived and the early history of Virginia involves a great deal of what is known today as “Indian fighting”. Indeed, it was the so-called “Jamestown Massacre” in 1622 by Native Americans that proved to be the last straw ending support for the Jamestown Company. After two years of debate Parliament terminated its charter and made Jamestown/Virginia a royal colony in 1624. With the reader’s permission, Indian fighting will be discussed in later chapters. The effects were considerable and need to be developed on their own. We must observe, however, that the local tribes, after a very hard fight lost their struggle.

The termination of the Jamestown Company charter and the creation of a “royal colony” was of considerable significance. Charter colonies a venture between the King and a private joint stock company allowed meaningful self-governance and administration by the company—with minimal involvement by the King and Parliament. Where this would have taken Virginia in the future decades is unknown and the effectiveness of the Jamestown Company was questionable so that one can never be certain where its future would have taken it.

Unlike the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which itself had a complex evolution after its establishment, allowed considerable autonomy to its Puritan (and Pilgrim) management until replaced by the 1692 Charter which was a hybrid royal/charter—with the King appointing a Royal Governor and several other officers, which maintaining the previous charter’s local self-governing institutions. That proved highly controversial in Massachusetts, while the transition to a Royal Colony in Virginia seventy years earlier was much less disruptive.

Still, the period between 1625 and 1689 was a tumultuous one in England, and, it seems to have created (1) a serious vacuum in royal direction from 1642 until 1660. Royal management of Virginia became more involved after 1677, but by that time the oligopoly was in place, and able to frustrate London’s will. (2) This vacuum, the gap between “British interests” and colony, and a propensity of its royal governors to “go native” to a certain degree, all combined to limit the royal governor’s power, and provide an opportunity for Virginia’s domestic elite to bypass him and appeal directly to King, Parliament and the Board of Trade. This was less evident in Massachusetts—at least until 1692.

In any case, by 1625 Virginia had created a colony-level policy system that proved durable, and) had committed to an tobacco export-based agricultural economic system. In 1625 Virginia’s population is estimated to be about 1,200. Immigration slowly filtered into the coastal Tidewater areas, and by 1635 about 5,000 lived in Virginia; in 1642 about 8,000.

Plantations, the Shredded Community and the County

Plantations created what has been called “the shredded community”: a “dispersed rural population on small subsistence farms orbiting around plantations relied for community services on crossroad churches, courthouses and markets. These constituted a kind of “shredded community” as scattered focal points for farming, trading, politics and religion”[3].  .

The shredded community reinforced Privatist individual self-sufficiency, and sustained it through county-level services that provided minimal governance as possible. That was just as well, the Virginia colony-level policy system until William Berkeley’s arrival in 1642 was more or less overwhelmed, and while it attempted to establish a colony-level governance centered in the Jamestown capitol, it had few resources with which to do so. Royal Governors more or less hacked out a minimal sense of direction and certainly retained a formal approval over the colony’s policy outputs—its actual performance was arguably more reactive than proactive. The Council of State and House of Burgesses, not to mention the Virginia Anglican Church were each outside the royal governor’s sphere of control.

Less obvious, but hugely impactful was the Virginia royal governor and its colony-level institutions of governance were not able to draw up the budding urbanization, the formation of towns and settlements, that seemed naturally to occur in other colonies. Virginia (Maryland Charleston) seemed in retrospect to suffer from an almost non-existent urbanization dynamic. Noted by historians and economists, this lack of urbanization, in particular the weak formation of towns or formalized, incorporated settlements, meant the colony-level institutions were deprived of a meaningful local structural unit through which it could exercise its influence over the local communities scattered throughout its isolated Tidewater region. The chief reason for the lack of urbanization and the “shredded community” that resulted was the prominence of plantations, controlled by private economic elites that displaced, if not substituted for, the towns that developed in other colonial geographies.

Towns became distinctly subsidiary to plantations, which were self-contained communities in their own right. Technically, any farm was a plantation, but the term eventually referred only to larger units with slaves, outbuildings, and a main house. Plantations produced most of the crafts and goods a small town could offer. Gunston Hall, George Mason’s estate, for example, included carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, spinners, weavers and even a distiller. Virginia’s towns derived from the plantation: as a speculative venture carried on by the planter capitalists … As tobacco moved westward through the colony so did the towns [4]

The tobacco-plantation economic base adopted by Virginia in its earliest days did not only encourage, it required, the dispersal of its production units along the coastal lowlands. Access to rivers permitted export of tobacco directly from the plantation. Lacking a meaningful commercial function, settlements/towns could not develop acquire either momentum or population to sustain meaningful growth. How did all this happen?

It all began with Jamestown itself, which was poorly chosen thirty miles inland on the James River in an outlet. Since the economic objectives of the London Jamestown Corporation was at its most basic to find something to export to England, its colonists/residents were primarily “land entrepreneurs”, interested in setting up their individual homesteads as soon as possible. The numerous natural river inlets were natural locations for the early plantation. With a pier tobacco could be laden onto ships and exported directly from the plantation. As late as 1765 George Washington exported and received imports directly from the wharf on his plantation on a Potomac River inlet. So it was geography and tobacco economics that set the course for Tidewater’s lack of urbanization and port cities. Neither political culture nor conscious planning had any determinant effect.

To complete the plantation as urban center picture, the plantation owner was master of his community, and the institutions of local governance, including the parish were located alongside the boundaries of his main house. Moreover, if cities were the residence of culture and hospitality, in Virginia the manor house extended its hospitality with abundance and graciousness; what culture there was, a library, discussion and a meeting of elites, occurred in the manor house. To the town was left the tavern.

Virginia contained almost no towns and thus the sense and operation of community played out very differently [than New England].  Connections between isolated plantations or farmsteads often began with kinship networks. In the older settled Tidewater areas the average white family might be related to five other families nearby, and a household head might interact with thirty or more relatives on a regular basis. … Small planters and families rarely ventured beyond the neighborhood, but when they did, it was normally for judicial proceedings and market days at county seats or religious services at the closest church. Some counties contained only one parish … Thus on Sunday mornings … several smaller rural neighborhoods came together not only to worship, but to exchange business documents, discuss tobacco prices, argue over the quality of horses, catch up on local gossip, and share news of the wider world … the interconnectedness of rural Virginia life makes it difficult to separate the social, economic and religious aspects from the political, House of Burgesses elections demonstrate how different layers of the county society related to the world of legislators, governors, ministers and even kings [5].

When the Jamestown Company collapsed in 1624, major plantation owners took over the property of the Company and assumed leadership of both local military and civil authority. Hard-pressed governors needed serious help in their day-today-administration and policy-making. That is why they selected from prominent local elites a cadre of “advisers” that he named, often for life, to his advisory cabinet, the Royal Council. The Royal Council evolved into the elite of the elite, composed of the largest and the heads of the prominent families.

In every river of this province there are men in number from ten to thirty who by trade and industry, have gotten very competent estates. These gentlemen take care to supply the poorer sort with goods and necessaries, and are sure to keep them always in their debt, and consequently dependent on them. Of this number are chosen His Majesty’s [Royal] Council, the Assembly, the Justices, and Officers of Government [6].

As Virginia grew over the 17th and 18th centuries, the link between towns and plantations weakened–logically because as plantations were established in the interior, even if close to, or on rivers, the willingness and capacity of ships to move deep upriver and use widely disparate plantation wharves strengthened the formation of towns. Settlement beyond the Fall Line was literally impassable for coastal shipping. In addition. Tobacco export competitiveness meant the quality of English tobacco figured greatly into its price, and so the need to inspect and certify tobacco exports, while quite controversial, developed a small planter constituency. Tobacco regulation became a serious colony-level concern, but typically divided the planter constituency.

By the 17th century, most plantations harvested a number of different crops than tobacco, and domestic trade within Virginia and adjoining colonies became possible. Moreover, the needs of the Crown increased, in particular the need to inspect and regulate the tobacco export, and most importantly collect any taxes due on its export, and on imports. As early as the 1640’s, but certainly after the Restoration of Charles II (1660’s) some planters and the certainly the Crown actively promoted the formation of towns/ports (see below). A series of “Town/Warehouse Acts”, lobbied for by the Crown, were approved by the Burgesses. All were eventually either repealed or died an inglorious death when few towns actually resulted. Norfolk, it should be mentioned was an exception to this, but its rise was very gradual, and did not compare to that of its Maryland rival, Baltimore. A major reason why the formal creation of towns was so unsuccessful is their linkage to tax payments and Crown revenues, and to the costs associated with warehousing. It was those more economic concerns, not the alleged anti-urbanization bias of Virginia plantation elites that frustrated Virginia’s colonial urbanization

Still, as the link between strong plantations and weak towns diminished, growth of the Virginia colony in physical size, population dispersal, and economy generated their own pressures toward town formation. A constituency grew to successfully support transforming the small town of Williamsburg into the Colony’s capital, and to make that town/city the site of governance, commercial trade, and after 1693 the site of the colony’s only institute of higher education, the College of William and Mary. Despite a town plan of some pretense, and the erection of a governor’s “palace”, Williamsburg was an indifferent, dull, and less than robust commercial center, populated chiefly by legislators when the Burgesses was in session. Even a colony capital was not able to withstand the negative dynamics associated with Virginia urbanization.

The breakthrough in town formation came only in the southern Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley when German, French and Scots-Irish poured in and set up their town centers, deep in the state’s Appalachian Valley interior. There the hold of tobacco, export, and plantation owners was appreciably more limited, and the need for migrants, especially German to service their yeoman farm households and preserve their culture and ethnicity prompted the formation of settlement/towns.

By the 1750’s settlers moved West into the Piedmont and the Valley regions of Virginia, establishing county courthouse towns as they went; along the rivers warehouse towns served the interior farmlands, and towns further East, such as Falmouth, Dumfries, and Alexandria, supplied the major needs of the new settlers. With the exception of Norfolk, all types of towns in colonial Virginia were roughly the same size containing scarcely more than a few hundred inhabitants … But these small settlements carried out the commercial and governmental functions associated with urban centers and played an important role in the colony’s economic and political life [7]